Thursday, July 06, 2006

So You Want to Be an Astronaut - Part 2

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This is the second of the three-episode series called “So You Want to Be an Astronaut.” I’ve researched the information that NASA and others have made available about the astronaut selection process and I’m condensing it and presenting it here.

Remember through all of this that I don’t have any particular “in” with NASA. I’ve simply done a bunch of research for you and I’m presenting it to you in a mildly entertaining way. If you happen to hear something that ain’t so, please e-mail me at and I’ll be happy to correct or update the information. In any case, make sure that you listen to the disclaimers in the first episode in the series.

So on to Part 2: Selection

Once you apply to become an astronaut, NASA determines whether you have the qualities that qualify you as an astronaut on paper. Panels of experts in the relevant disciplines screen the applications to determine who’s qualified and who gets to be a finalist.

Provided that you make the “paper cut” and are selected as a finalist, you and several hundred other applicants get interviewed, poked, and prodded in person. It’s a week-long process that includes personal interviews, medical evaluations, and orientations. In addition to your physical status, NASA reviews your education, training, experience, and any other qualifications that might make you a valuable astronaut. Remember that you have several hundred candidates milling around down there and each of you already qualifies on paper. The real selection is going to happen in the personal interviews.

If you’re selected as an astronaut candidate, you go to the Johnson Space Center in Houston and begin a one- to two-year training and evaluation program.

Astronaut candidates receive training in space vehicle systems, math, geology, meteorology, navigation, oceanography, orbital mechanics, astronomy, physics, and materials science, in addition to other technical subjects. They also train in land and sea survival techniques, scuba diving, and space suits.

Every astronaut candidate gets tossed in the pool in a flight suit and tennis shoes during the first month of training and must swim three lengths of a 25-meter pool dressed that way. You can freestyle, breast stroke, or sidestroke and there’s no time limit. You also have to tread water for ten minutes.

You have to go through the military water survival training syllabus before you begin flight training. I get the sense that that includes the simulated inverted cockpit escape like the one in An Officer and a Gentleman. That gives me the willies just thinking about it, although it’s probably worth it.

You also have to become SCUBA qualified in order to do your extravehicular training because the primary extravehicular practical training facility is a great big pool where neutral buoyancy simulates the zero-gee work environment.

NASA also trains candidates in high- and low- atmospheric pressure environments (think Officer and a Gentleman again).

Candidates also get zero-gee exposure in an aircraft flying parabolas designed to give about 20 seconds at a time of weightlessness. New candidates are trained in a McDonnell Douglas C-9, the successor to the perennial favorite Boeing KC-135 Vomit Comet was retired in 2004.

Pilots get 15 hours or more a month of proficiency flying in the Northrop T-38 Talon, a two-seat jet trainer. Pilots destined for STS missions fly one of four Shuttle Training Aircraft or “STAs,” which are Gulfstream II business jets modified to perform like the STS orbiter in the landing phase. NASA says that pilots assigned to this duty get about 100 hours in the STAs, which is equivalent to 600 orbiter landings. The implied landing every 10 minutes seems a little quick to me, but maybe not. The STAs come in with thrust reversers on and the gear down to get the 17-20 degree glideslope and the brick-like handling qualities of the orbiter right. Bear in mind that most commercial and general aviation aircraft land using a three-degree glideslope.

Mission Specialists also get to fly a minimum of four hours a month, but it’s always dual training. Still, time in a T-38 is time in a T-38.

If, at the end of the training program, NASA selects you, you’re an astronaut.

But the training doesn’t stop there. Much of the astronaut training is a continuation of the training that started in the astronaut candidate program. You augment a lot of your training by training in both the single systems trainers (which, as the name implies, simulate discreet systems or system groups) and you train in the Shuttle Mission Simulators.

You may train at the Sonny Carter Training Facility or the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. You’ll almost certainly train on the full-scale mockups of the spacecraft that are current at that time, as well as on mockups of the subjects of your mission, such as satellites and other research platforms. A lot of scientists on the ground are going to depend on you to be their eyes, ears, and hands. They’ll have perhaps ten years tied up in that little drawer or compartment in the payload area and they’re going to depend on mission specialists and others to make sure that their experiments go perfectly.

Civilian astronauts are government employees and are classified for pay as GS-11 through GS-14, which equates to an approximate range of $56,000to $128,000, assuming the Houston, Texas Locality Pay Area (about 26% greater than the base level for those grades in other areas). You placement in the pay grades depends on your education, experience, and other factors. Military personnel continue with their military pay and are simply detailed to NASA. Civilians who are selected as astronauts are expected to stay in the program for five years. Military astronauts are assigned a specific tour of duty with the space program.

That’s it for Part 2 of “So You Want to Be an Astronaut.” In the next episode, I’ll go into some ruminations on the selection process and pass on some ideas that seem to make sense if you’re looking for an advantage in the selection process.

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